This Is Our New Song: 'The Bends' and the Reformation of Alternative Rock
The Bends was the genesis of Radiohead’s perceptive, forward-thinking tendencies, which would go on to inspire countless musicians in myriad ways.
The Bends represents something different today than it did in 1995. Back then, Radiohead’s second album was a revelation, a stimulating and inventive follow-up from the band that was most known for “Creep”. Although it was a stunning transformation, it was seen as little more than that. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the album is heralded as the true beginning of an amazing career for a band whose legacy is filled with innovative records, stylistic metamorphoses, and endless pushing of musical boundaries. To the people of 2015, the deviations of The Bends seem only to hint toward the universal paradigm shifts of OK Computer and Kid A, but in 1995, when such albums hadn’t yet been dreamt of, The Bends was just a pleasant surprise. In a way, both eras have done a disservice to the record.
This is because we forget the context. To truly comprehend the depth of influence and the precedent set by The Bends, it’s essential to understand the state of the culture that framed its release. Like most great records, it’s more powerful when considered within the framework of its era, an overwhelming, turbulent stage in the evolution of rock music when ‘80s genres like post-punk, college rock, no wave and indie were all catching up to the mainstream faster than anyone could predict. More than their more prolific contemporaries at the time, Radiohead identified the fragmenting rock canon and made an album in its wake, a record that embodied the ideals of the decade without committing to a particular style. As a result, The Bends would set the stage for the next era of rock music.
A Splintering Rock Culture
In many ways, the ‘90s was the last decade to have well-defined, mainstream movements in rock music. At the time of Pablo Honey’s release in February 1993, alternative rock was flourishing the world over. Later that year Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Suede, the Flaming Lips, the Boo Radleys, Slowdive, the Smashing Pumpkins, Belly, Liz Phair, the Afghan Whigs, and Blur would all release highly-acclaimed records, with grunge music in particular reaching its peak of commercial viability in America. With this in the background, Radiohead’s bitter, gloomy single “Creep” became an international success, even as Pablo Honey as a whole faced middling critical reception. Critics noted long, ambling instrumental passages, illogical song construction and lack of interesting hooks as the album’s primary failings, qualities that can be heard on disjointed songs like “Anyone Can Play Guitar”, “You”, and “Vegetable”, songs that sorely lacked the clean simplicity of “Creep”. “How Do You?” took after the Britpop stylings of Blur and the Stone Roses with a slight tinge of early English punk energy, while “Stop Whispering” recalled the guitar-based ballads of U2. Throughout Pablo Honey, Radiohead wore their influences on their sleeves, but never made the pieces coherent or connected. Without the nuanced, angst-ridden passion necessary to capitalize on the grunge movement’s popularity, and without the melodic intricacy and simple, infectious compositional style needed to jump on the advancing Britpop bandwagon, Pablo Honey faded quietly.
Then, of course, the culture began to change. Burning at both ends since 1991, Grunge was already faltering by ‘94. The genre’s most unwilling luminary, Kurt Cobain, committed suicide in April of that year, just seven months after Nirvana released their number one-charting third album, In Utero. Contemporaries Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, all still massively popular, struggled against label woes, drug problems and inner turmoil while a new era of grunge was being rushed in over them by a slew of freshly major label-signed followers like Creed and Nickelback. Even Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl would help usher in the post-grunge era with the first Foo Fighters record, more commercially-leaning than anything Nirvana had ever attempte, in July of ‘95. In a few years, alternative rock would overtake the mainstream completely.
Meanwhile in the U.K., Britpop, which was in many ways a more optimistic response to the hard-edged angst of American grunge music, was reaching its commercial apex. In 1995, albums from Elastica, Black Grape, Blur, Pulp, Oasis, the Boo Radleys, and Supergrass shared number one positions on the charts with global pop superstars like Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, and Mariah Carey, all while England’s two cultural titans Blur and Oasis fought a bitter war to the top of the singles chart, a rivalry publicized and heightened by the country’s bloodthirsty music press.
Bubbling under the surface of the mainstream rock world were electronic and rap artists like Tricky, Goldie, and — with “Gangsta’s Paradise”, the first rap single to sell one million copies in the U.K. — Coolio, slowly broadening the musical tastes of the record-buying public. These musicians were an omen of the shifting pop music landscape. However, it would still be a number of years before that cultural cache was traded in for any kind of widespread influence.
Though it was behind the fall of grunge by a couple years, Britpop’s reign also didn’t last long. By 1996, the well of U.K. rock was being bled dry once again, a victim, as grunge was, to overexposure and, as a result, too many inferior clones. Once ‘97 rolled around, even international Britpop kings Oasis had fallen off with the overindulgent Be Here Now, while their greatest rivals, Blur, abandoned the mode entirely for their eccentric, American indie-influenced self-titled fifth record. By the year’s end, the U.K. press would be far more interested in experimental rock artists like Spiritualized and Mogwai than redundant Britpop imitators. In conjunction with a burgeoning European obsession with house, hip-hop, and post-rock music unusual, innovative artists were finally dethroning the continent’s biggest rock stars (the ones who hadn’t already moved on, anyway) as primary cultural motivators.
This is the cultural tumult in which Radiohead released the The Bends in March of 1995. With the critical success of alternative rock effectively collapsing in the United States and mainstream British rock burdened by feverish commercial attention, Radiohead followed-up their mildly received debut with a surprising, dynamic record drawn equally from the ashes of grunge and the flourishing empire of Britpop. Amidst that devastatingly fractured rock landscape, Radiohead took influence from the college rock progenitors of grunge music (R.E.M., the Pixies, etc.) as much as from the retro artists favored by Britpop luminaries (the Beatles, David Bowie, etc.), combining the fragments of American and British music to create one of the mid-’90s' most quintessential rock records, equal parts imaginative, self-aware, melodramatic and anthemic.
The biggest tracks on The Bends fuse these elements together. The foundation of “The Bends”, for instance, is its huge major chords and a melodic vocal hook that seem to stem directly from Oasis’s big arena anthems like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Some Might Say”. However, the song is more lyrically subversive. The opening line, “Where do we go from here?” and the song’s grim drum and bass breakdown where Yorke repeatedly intones, “I wish that something would happen”, fall more in line with the American alternative movement’s disillusionment with sudden mainstream popularity than the classic sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that appealed to most U.K. rockstars. It’s a return to the self-loathing sentiment of “Creep”, but a touch more introspective and mature.
“Fake Plastic Trees” is a mostly conventional acoustic ballad that eventually surges into a massive distorted verse and chorus section, reminiscent of ‘80s arena rock superstars like R.E.M. and U2 (two influences more immediately detectable throughout Pablo Honey) and preempting the warm theatricality of indie rock ballad masters Coldplay.
“My Iron Lung”, the album’s lead single, embraces the loud/quiet/loud dynamic that Kurt Cobain endearingly admitted to swiping from the Pixies a few years before. The song’s brutal, chaotic bridge section can be directly sourced to the grunge movement, particularly Nirvana, with its drawled vocals, squealing distortion and punishing drum groove that resemble the breakneck melodics of “Breed” and the dissonant ferocity of “Scentless Apprentice”. Lyrically, “My Iron Lung” seems highly critical of the stagnating state of alternative rock in general, even Radiohead themselves (particularly Pablo Honey), the most telling line being: “This is our new song / Just like the last one / A total waste of time”.
Other tracks are split evenly among English and American influences. “Just” is the best example, with its melodic guitar line in the verses and the big, catchy chorus, but the song’s drum introduction is so reminiscent of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that it had to be an intentional homage. “Black Star” has the folky hard rock of Led Zeppelin and the Who written all over its intro, chorus, and bridge riffs, but its timid, fragile verses have more in common with R.E.M., who also play a big role in the echo and chorus guitar sound of “Bones”. It seemed that Radiohead’s wide range of influences never changed after Pablo Honey; they just readjusted their relationship to their progenitors, taking the fractured approach of songs like “Anyone Can Play Guitar” and smoothing it out with original melodies and elegant transitions.
The legacy of the influences on The Bends, then, is energetic college rock filtered through the harsh punk ethos of grunge, filtered back through a more traditional English alternative style. Radiohead were dramatically fragmenting the culture of alternative rock at a time when most everyone else were tying themselves to a specific music scene or style. Artists like Blur and Pearl Jam would eventually have to dig themselves out of the dying genres that they helped build earlier in their careers; with The Bends, Radiohead had already escaped that burden.
An Example Set for Continued Evolution
Once the '00s crowned, retro rock and post-punk were once again ripe for appropriating, exemplified by the decade’s biggest indie rock stars: the Strokes, Interpol, the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Spoon, Arctic Monkeys, the White Stripes, Coldplay, the Libertines, Arcade Fire, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, for example. Up-and-coming rock bands like Muse and Coldplay took their fundamental sound from The Bends, building on the album’s elegant song construction with deeper pools of effects and more dramatic dynamics. Radiohead, meanwhile, kept pushing into new stylistic territory with Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows, somehow maintaining and amplifying the critical and commercial popularity that they cultivated in the mid-’90s.
The Bends was the genesis of Radiohead’s perceptive, forward-thinking tendencies -- the characteristic they’re most known for today -- and a landmark example of alternative rock’s shifting priorities before the dawn of the new millenium. As time would go on, mainstream artists from pop to R&B; to hip-hop would also embrace a more fragmented approach to their music, fusing clashing styles and influences into a mosaic of global, diversified microgenres. Radiohead has pushed rock music into that direction their entire career, but they did it first with The Bends. It’s a precedent that’s stuck for all popular music since.
Splash image: still from "High and Dry" music video.